Father Richard Barrett answers readers' questions
A READER WRITES: I am intrigued to latow why a Catholic version of Alpha had to be developed, especially if, as it is often said, the original Alpha course is nothing more than an innocent introduction to the basics of Christianity.
THE GENERAL PRINCIPLE to be stated, first of all. is that evangelical Christianity can be a helpful base camp in the assault on the high peaks of classical Christianity it was certainly indispensable to Newman and gave him access to fundamental truths such as the atonement, resurrection and personal salvation. While this column is positive about the benefits of evangelical Christianity, we have to accept that it is not everyone's cup of tea. So notwithstanding an army of sand-washed Promise Keepers in the US for whom it has meant a genuine Wendezeit. biblebashing Christianity is a turn-off for many here in the UK. Lega, a barracking barrister from Brixton, objects that it fails the reason-test. "The last thing I need is to have another book thrown at me." she says. "Give me reasons for believing."
So the first thing one has to say about Alpha is that it is thoroughly biblical in its approach to God's Word. But this comports a problem, for its founder, Nick Gumble, insists that Revelation is based on the bible alone. Readers will know that it was Luther who introduced the systematic version of this novel idea to classical Christianity with the catchphrase sola scriptura. Obviously we could never accept this reduction of Revelation to only one of two sources, since we believe that Apostolic Tradition and Magisterium are also important sources of faith. In fact, classical Christians believe that these three sources form a unity (Dei verbum 10; Fides et ratio 55). Biblicism, as we call old-fashioned fundamentalism today, creates added problems when it means that schools are saddled with creationism. This does not go down well either with rational students who see the evidence of evolution everywhere or indeed with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Secondly, one Anglican clergyman said to me: "The problem with Alpha is that there is no Omega it doesn't end up anywhere." The Alpha course believes that you don't have to pledge yourself to any denomination to believe in Jesus and indeed that the Church of Christ cannot be identified with any particular denomination. As he says himself in one of his videos "No-one cares any more what denominations we are, because we are one in Christ Nobody cares tuppence. All that matters is that we know and love Christ." We can see why even among Anglicans the Alpha programme is regarded as deficient. Bishop Lindsay Irwin has in fact devised a much more classical sacramental programme called Credo, which strives to remedy the gaps of Alpha.
The truth is of course that there is no such thing as a faith in Jesus that is not mediated by the Community that received, guarded and expounded the Gospel. Classical Christians are simply honest about this fact others pull the wool over the eyes of their audience.
Indeed, we make an important point to every convert, that the Church herself is an object of faith, hence the article of the Creed, "We believe the one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church." So for classical Christians not only is the Church not an accident of history, but it was founded by the deliberate will of Jesus. This Community was denominated very early on, called The Way at first in Jerusalem, then Christian at Antioch and finally Catholic everywhere from the end of the first century (Ignatius Antioch). Thirdly, Alpha identifies only two of the seven sacraments as acceptable another 16th century idea taken from Luther. Detraction often leads to subtraction so after blasting the Pope, Luther said his last Mass at the Augustinian convent by the Flaminian Gate before running off with an ex-nun and reducing the old system from seven to two. Were commentators from The limes of 1850 aware that this may have been the reason for %SCE-HRH'S choice of title for his pastoral letter, From Out the Flaminian Gate? Perhaps an historian could write in and enlighten us. Alpha's ---ult-rutv, there is a problem with
Alpha's methodology it prefers to elicit people's feelings and thoughts, usually in that order, and so reduces what could be informative sessions to exercises in group therapy. Fifthly, Alpha does not accept a ministerial priesthood in Christianity Gumble prefers to appoint "elders" rather like our Mormon friends and is quite explicit that these leaders are not sacrificing priests. Not easy to reconcile with two millennia of Christianity. Nor
can it be reconciled with the new Ritual for the Church of England, Common Worship.
Sixthly, baptism is presented as a declarative ceremony it simply declares that one is a Christian and that one's sins have been forgiven through a private commitment to Jesus. So the two sacraments presented don't really accomplish anything in iv rather they are signs that celebrate themes whereas we celebrate events, to quote a liturgical wizard from Northampton. Obviously in such a schema one doesn't really need sacraments as understood in classical Christianity nor indeed a priesthood. Seventhly, Alpha leaders pray over enquirers for the gift of tongues or glossolalia as it is called. Readers might better understand this phenomenon by watching Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. The real thing of course is not about artful babbling the gift of tongues that the apostles received facilitated communication (Acts 2:413). St Paul put the gift in focus it must serve the Church (I Cor l2:8-1 I).
Eighthly, Alpha makes no distinction between public revelation (Scripture and Apostolic Tradition) and private revelation (visions, locutions and prophecy). This means that everything is pretty much up for grabs if you can convince an elder that the Spirit has been talking to you. Bishop h-win's Credo is the Anglican corrective and PACT is ours both tell us that using Alpha without major adjustments will produce a patchwork quilt of a few select Christian themes at the very best. Moving someone on from Alpha's deep narrow-cut channels then to the lush uplands of PACT may require an ecelesi()logical reading of Acts and a crash course in Vatican It's document on the Word of God (Dei Verbum). This would appear to be the best way of overcoming the limitations of base camp Alpha. Scripture and Tradition are the two lungs of the Church introducing enquirers to one without the other can only lead to serious altitude sickness when they have to press on to the high peaks of classical Christianity.